Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Difference Between Me And Marcel Proust

I have an extremely poor sense of smell. In fact most smells do not even register with me. Oddly enough, there are one or two odours that I seem to be able to detect far more strongly than other people, chief among them being cat’s piss. Apart from this, however, I am almost entirely anosmiac (Yes, that’s the technical term).

My anosmia was the straw which broke the back of the relationship I was involved in before I met my wife. The woman in question, let’s call her Siobhan, appealed to me for a number of reasons, not the least being the fact that having an Irish name, red hair and a deep attachment to the countryside she seemed to represent a missing part of my identity.

Why she was involved with me is a little more difficult to explain. I think she began by believing I was brilliant, soon came to think that I was merely flashy and ended up convinced that I was little more than an educated savage.

Siobhan and I were sporadically living together. I was a student at Liverpool University at the time and shared a flat with two other male students. One night she shook me awake. ‘What’s that smell?’ she demanded.

‘I can’t smell anything,’ I said, sleepily. Glancing at the bedside clock, I saw that it was three in the morning. ‘Go back to sleep,’ I urged her.

But she wasn’t prepared to go back to sleep. She got out of bed and went downstairs where she discovered that one of my flatmates, having returned very late and somewhat the worse for alcohol, had decided to make himself some baked beans on toast. (He wasn’t a tremendously sophisticated individual). He’d put the beans in a saucepan to heat up and sat down to wait, only to fall into a drunken reverie. It was the smell of burning baked beans and scorched aluminium that had hauled Siobhan from the depths of sleep.

My flatmate later told me that he was awoken to find her standing over him holding the saucepan of burnt beans with a look of utter fury on her face. ‘I thought she was going to hit me with it,’ he admitted.

She didn’t hit him. Instead, she went upstairs, put her coat on over her nightdress and, without waiting even to put on shoes, left the flat, walking through the middle of Liverpool and through the Mersey Tunnel (usually reserved for cars) all the way to her own flat in Birkenhead. I don’t know exactly how far this was but it was several miles through streets that only a short time later were to be torn apart by rioting.

The next time I saw her she admitted, quite casually, that one of her feet was bleeding by the time she got home. She didn’t care. She’d had enough. My inability to smell the burnt beans was emblematic to her of all my other failings.

Actually, I think I know how she felt. I say this because it seems to me that there are some people who suffer from a kind of verbal anosmia. They have no idea what constitutes good writing. Wait a minute, I hear you say, everybody disagrees on what makes good writing. Actually, I don’t think that’s true. Most people disagree on what makes good writing. Some people just haven’t a clue one way or the other.

It’s not their fault. The poor things just can’t smell the words. Such people should not try to be writers, in my opinion. They’re only asking for rejection, like the contestants who appear on the X Factor (that’s a British tv talent show in case it’s not on a tv set near you) who can’t sing a note in tune but don’t understand when they’re told they’re wasting their time trying to be pop stars. And yet, because so much misplaced glamour clings to the notion of being a writer, I am always encountering verbal anosmiacs convinced that the world of publishing is wilfully and maliciously turning its back on them.

I would never have made a perfumier. To have tried would have been to have invited ridicule. Do what you’re good at, that’s my advice.


Paul Lamb said...

As long as you can sniff out a good story . . .

Anonymous said...

I hate to be picky, but it was the taste of the madeleine that triggered the memory. (I know taste and smell are related.) See below.

“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”

Tara Flynn

Brian Keaney said...

Picky is fine by me, Tara. Good to hear from you and you're quite right about the taste of the madeleine. However,he also said:

'But from a long-distant past when nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.'

And, I believe that somewhere else he goes into some detail about the
smell of his chamber pot but I can''t think where, exactly.

Anonymous said...

I think I must be the opposite of you. My nose is now filled with the stink of a piss pot rather than the fragrant almondy scent of a madeleine!
Tara Flynn